Thursday, February 14, 2008
The TITANIC Photographer
Born in Cork in 1880, Frank Browne came from a prominent family in that city. His grandfather, James Hegarty, was Lord Mayor, and his uncle, Robert Browne, was Bishop of Cloyne for 41 years. His schooldays were spent at Christian Brothers’ College, Cork, the Bower Convent, Athlone, Belvedere College , Dublin, and Castleknock College, Dublin. When Frank left school in 1897 he set out on a Grand Tour of Europe. The resultant images were the first shots in a salvo of photographic activity that would still be reverberating 100 years later.
Kilkenny Hurlers, 1925
On his return from the continent Frank joined the Jesuits. After two years in the novitiate, he attended the Royal University in Dublin where he spent three years in the same class as his fellow Belvederian, James Joyce.
From 1903 to 1906 he studied philosophy in Chieri, near Turin, and then returned to the desks of Belvedere College where he taught for five years. During the first of these (1906), he founded The Belvederian (the college annual) and the Camera Club; both still exist.
From 1911 to 1916, Frank Browne studied Theology at Milltown Park in Dublin. It was during this period that his Uncle Robert (the Bishop of Cloyne) sent him an unusual present: a ticket for the first legs of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, sailing from Southampton to Cherbourg and then on to Queenstown (Cobh), Co Cork, Ireland.
Gymnasium on board
While on board, an American millionaire offered to pay his way for the rest of the voyage to New York. On being apprised of this suggestion, Frank's Jesuit Superior cabled Queenstown saying, succinctly,“GET OFF THAT SHIP---PROVINCIAL”.
Last view of the Titanic
After the tragedy, Frank Browne’s photographs appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. He had taken the last picture of Captain Smith and the only one ever taken in the Marconi room. His series starts at Waterloo Station with the “Titanic Special” and documents the activities of passengers and crew aboard this unique ship, concluding with the anchor being raised from the water for the last time.
On the Western Front with the Irish Guards and in post-war Germany.
Battlefield, Ypres, August, 1917 In 1915 Frank was ordained a priest by his Uncle Robert. The following year he volunteered for service as a chaplain to the Irish Guards. He was with them at the Western Front and in Germany well into 1919. He served at the battle of the Somme, at Locre, Wytschaete and Massine Ridge, Paschendaele, Ypres, Amiens and Arras. He was wounded five times and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar.
'The Watch on the Rhine', Cologne, Germany, 1919
In the albums he assembled for his regiment he included pictures of the appalling suffering in the trenches and finished with images of Cologne and Bonn; one of these,“Watch On The Rhine” is a classic.
After the war Father Browne returned to Belvedere and in 1922 was appointed superior of Gardiner Street Church. Due to ill health he travelled to Australia in 1924. On the journey out he photographed life aboard ship and at Cape Town. He travelled extensively throughout Australia, photographing sugar cane processing, members of Irish religious orders, migrant workers, new immigrants in canvas villages, and sheep farming in a series covering a cross section of Australian Life.
Country Road, Co. Roscommon, 1937
On his return journey he visited Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Egypt, and Gibraltar, making memorable images as he went. During the 1930s he visited England several times. The majority of the images from this time are from East Anglia and London.
When he returned to Ireland he was stationed as a member of the missions and retreats staff of the Irish order. His duties took him to all parts of Ireland, working mostly in the evening, which enabled him to indulge his photographic activities during the day. Apart from trips to England on assignments for the British Museum and the Church of England, the remainder of his work was undertaken in Ireland. He died in July of 1960 and is buried in the Jesuit plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Father Browne's great collection of negatives lay forgotten for 25 years after his death. It was by chance in 1986 that Father E. E. O’Donnell SJ discovered this amazing collection in a large metal trunk. Father O’Donnell brought the negatives to the attention of the features editor of the London Sunday Times who dubbed them “the photographic equivalent to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls”.
Subsequently, David Davison was invited to assess them from an artistic/photographic point of view and make recommendations on their conservation. The news was bad: over half of the negatives were on an unstable and dangerous nitrate base and many had already deteriorated badly. Sponsorship from Allied Irish Banks enabled David and his son, Edwin, to make a complete set of duplicate negatives of the entire collection and preserve it for posterity.
The collection has been catalogued on a computerized database; this has facilitated the selection of images for exhibitions and books and has been used for the selection of the finest pictures now offered for sale.
Frank Browne's inherent artistic talent is clearly present in his earliest photographic works. Over the years, his abilities flourished and enabled him to create a body of work unrivalled by any Irish photographer during the first half of the 20th Century. Various authorities have compared his work to that of Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson, but much of his work predates them.
His perceptive creativity was reaching maturity during his time in Australia and flowered profusely through the 1930s and 1940s, during which time he created a priceless document of Irish life. During this latter period he wrote for the Kodak Magazine, and photographically illustrated Irish magazines and brochures and performed an active role in bringing the “SALON” movement to Ireland. This movement was initiated to foster photography as an art form, a matter close to Frank Browne's heart.
In La Linea, Spain, 1925, all he made some 41,632 negatives. His interests were broad, resulting in his capturing a unique view into the industrial, agricultural, religious, commercial and social elements of an Ireland developing its own post independence identity.
There are several means by which this work can be assessed. Many of the pictures are quaintly nostalgic, evoking personal or received recollections of a different world. The social/documentary value may be deemed more significant than nostalgia.
St. Stephen's Green in Fog, Dublin, 1944
(Some of the exerpts above is from a Father Browne memorial site)